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Together, but unequal

Public school gets bulk of homeless and special needs kids, compared with co-located charter
New York Teacher

Gary Hovland
PS 65 Mother Hale Academy and the Academic Leadership Charter School share the same building in the South Bronx and have close to the same number of students, virtually all minorities.

That’s where the similarity ends. At PS 65, 48 percent of the children live in homeless shelters or doubled up with other families in temporary housing, compared with only 13 percent at the charter school. At PS 65, more than 26 percent of the students have special needs, with nearly 11 percent having needs so serious that they are educated in self-contained classrooms. At the charter school, only 11 percent of students are classified as special needs, and all are accommodated in regular classrooms.

The level of challenges facing these students is reflected in the absentee rates at each school. At PS 65, 48 percent of the students are chronically absent, while at the Academic Leadership Charter School, 16 percent are.

It’s this sort of stark disparity that has propelled the UFT to fight for charter equity legislation in Albany that requires taxpayer-funded charters to accept and keep numbers of high-needs students comparable to those in district public schools.

“It’s patently unfair that charter schools should be allowed to take public tax dollars yet there is no accountability and consequences for any charter that fails to accept and keep all children,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew. “It’s time our lawmakers mandate that they do so.”

The UFT backs legislation that would bar charters that fail to enroll comparable numbers of high-need students from expanding existing schools or opening new schools. If the charter school refuses to address the problem, its operating company could forfeit its existing charters under the proposed legislation.

UFT research shows that, on average, public schools have more than one-third as many students with disabilities and virtually all students requiring self-contained classes are educated in public schools, with charters enrolling less than 1 percent. Homeless students represent on average 14.5 percent of the public school student body, but just 9.6 percent of students in charter schools, according to 2015–16 city data analyzed by the UFT.

The sorting of students between the public schools and the charter schools begins with the youngest students. Only parents with the household stability and opportunity to plan six months in advance enroll their children in the admissions lottery for Academic Leadership Charter School for the coming school year, while PS 65, the neighborhood zoned school, accepts all comers.

But the sorting doesn’t end there. Students at Academic Leadership Charter School who don’t measure up in either academic proficiency or behavior are “weeded out early on,” said Erin Jaret, who taught for a year and a half at the Academic Leadership Charter School before taking a job at PS 65 in late 2015.

Jaret, who teaches 2nd grade, said the charter school offered few supports for English language learners and no special education services of any kind except speech therapy.

“Students with needs are all transferred to public schools, which leaves charter school teachers with classes of students all on level and with minimal distractions,” she said.

Ten charter school students in all have been admitted to PS 65 this school year — three from the Academic Leadership Charter School and seven from other neighboring charters, according to Chapter Leader Jewan Baboolal.

Baboolal said PS 65’s special service providers have had to double up in rooms to provide mandated services ever since the charter school co-located in their building. The cramped quarters make it difficult for both providers and the children to focus, he said.

“The ongoing influx of transfer students from charters puts an even greater strain on our efforts to support these vulnerable children,” he said. “But we are doing our best.”

In the case of children with special needs, Baboolal explained, parents are told there are no services at the charter so their child will be better off at a public school.

A parent who requested anonymity said she pulled her 9-year-old son out of Academic Leadership Charter School and moved him to PS 65 in September after what she described as three years of a “don’t care” attitude starting in kindergarten.

“Teachers and administrators ignored my concerns, never notified me about his work and didn’t follow up on my request for evaluation,” she said. “So I moved him into PS 65, where he is getting the support he needs.”